Haydn (The) Seasons

Harnoncourt revisits Haydn’s pastoral oratorio with sensational results

Author: 
Richard Wigmore

Haydn (The) Seasons

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s new Seasons trumps his 1987 recording (Apex, 4/87R) on virtually every count. The conductor’s affection for the spirit and teeming detail of Haydn’s celebration of an idealised rural world is again manifest. Yet pacing and characterisation now seem that much more natural, with none of the earlier recording’s idiosyncratic (usually slow) tempo choices. The opening chorus of “Spring”, for instance, distinctly lethargic in 1987, now has a gentle lilt, with a palpable sense of wonder and delight at nature’s rebirth.

Speeds in the choral numbers still tend to be broader than those favoured by Gardiner (Archiv, 5/92) and the bucolically uninhibited René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, A/04), sometimes, as in the oratorio’s majestic finale, with a welcome gain in nobility. One or two of the fugues – say, the ones in the Prayer in “Spring” and the summer tempest – are again slightly marred by Harnoncourt’s trademark exaggerated staccatos and fussy, micro-managed dynamics. But the boozy wine harvest rivals Jacobs’s in lusty, lurching exuberance. Here and elsewhere – not least in the thrilling account of the autumn chase, with its shifting horn perspectives and vividly whooping grace notes from trombones and bassoons – Harnoncourt and his crack forces (the Arnold Schönberg Choir more incisively recorded than in 1987) relish all the bold and brilliant colours of Haydn’s astonishingly inventive score.

Harnoncourt’s solo team, too, is a match for any on disc. Fast-rising soprano Genia Kühmeier is an enchanting Hanne, radiant and graceful in her big aria in “Summer”, and singing her song of aristocratic lust outwitted with just the right knowing humour. Werner Güra, as mellifluous and elegant as he was for Jacobs, and the virile, imposing baritone of Christian Gerhaher both bring to their music (including the ostensibly routine “dry” recitatives) a Lieder singer’s care for precise colouring and character. Abetted by Harnoncourt’s atmospheric accompaniments, Güra’s description of summer torpor and Gerhaher’s sombre and dramatic memento mori in “Winter” are two highlights of an often inspiring recording. For a prime recommendation in this glorious, life-affirming work of the composer’s old age, the choice now lies between Gardiner, Jacobs and this new Harnoncourt.

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